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NTW - Ben Harper

6/17/2014

Ben & Ellen Harper, 'Childhood Home'
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Twenty years ago singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ben Harper released his debut, Welcome to the Cruel World, an acoustic record featuring only his voice and guitars. Since that time, he's issued electric records with his own bands, and collaborations with Charlie Musselwhite and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Childhood Home takes Harper back to his roots -- literally: he recorded it in collaboration with his mother, Ellen Harper. There isn't an electric instrument on this ten-song set, which features six new tunes by him and four by her. There are a trio of other players who help out on piano, guitar, and upright bass. Ellen's parents (both musicians) founded the Folk Music Center and Museum in Claremont, California, over 50 years ago; she still works there. As a single mom she worked while Harper played around with various instruments. The music here centers on songs of home and the myriad experiences that revolve around it, some of them quite painful. Ben's country-folk song "A House Is a Home" (which recalls the melody of "Love Is a Rose") looks at the hearth as the centerpiece of personal history. Ellen's "City of Dreams" reflects on the city where she grew up that has disappeared; the victim of suburban sprawl. Ben's "Born to Love You" is a waltz sung as a duet, accompanied by quietly shuffling drums and piano. Here, "home" is the beloved: I love you/I live you...." On her "Farmer's Daughter," a minor-key country-blues, Ellen plays banjo and Ben lays out Weissenborn slide and flatpicked acoustic fills. Their layered backing vocals are haunting. Her "Altar of Love" is a country-gospel waltz. Its poetry is simple, direct, yet expert; she distills the heart-wrenching experience of marrying, motherhood, and sacrifice in a fable that contains a tragic circular twist of fate. Her deeply moving "Break Your Heart," with its subtle R&B tinge, is the finest song here. Ben's "Memories of Gold" reveals the growth in his own writing. Here, country, soul, and folk-blues all commingle in a cut-time waltz. His world-weary vocals offer wisdom gained through lived experience. The ghostly, holistic gospel in his closer, "How Could We Not Believe," is a hymn of beauty and resolve, with the pair's voices blending perfectly amid strummed autoharp, dulcimer, and guitars. Childhood Home is, in essence, timeless. It brims with quiet conviction about the blood and spiritual ties that bind, an indestructible place in the heart, and offers proof that folk music can indeed be "soul" music. - Thom Juerk, All Music Guide

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